The boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life

From the pages of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag comes an intriguing memoir of the boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life, “My Boys.”

From one “boy” to another

Louisa had always preferred the company of boys and wished she had been born one herself.  She particularly favored the age when boys were “regarded as nuisances till they are twenty-one.” Enjoying the rough and raw edges of adolescent boys, she writes:

“I like boys and oysters raw; so, though good manners are always pleasing, I don’t mind the rough outside burr which repels most people, and perhaps that is the reason why the burrs open and let me see the soft lining and taste the sweet nut hidden inside.”

Finding acceptance

Louisa herself was certainly rough and raw and found acceptance with boys that age that she didn’t find with her own peers. Her manner was considered “queer” (her word) by most who felt she didn’t fit the mold of a Victorian woman but boys readily embraced her queerness. In Louisa, they found a friend and intimate confidant who embraced and accepted them. It was a way of accepting herself.

Fact or fiction?

“My Boys” was written after Little Women and probably needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There is no way of verifying the facts. However, the story reveals a warm and bighearted woman who, despite her desire to remain single, did on occasion, require the intimacy of a close friendship.

Let’s meet some of the boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life:

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Frank

Frank was Louisa’s first “well-beloved” boy. Meeting him at the age of seven, he became her constant playmate. He insisted on testing her mettle with a bit of bullying, trying his best to make her cry “by slapping my hands with books, hoop-sticks, shoes, anything that came along capable of giving a good stinging blow.” It was with great pride that Louisa did not, and he respected her for it: “‘She’s a brave little thing, and you can’t make her cry.”

Beginning with Frank, Louisa competed with any boy who was up to the challenge. She prided herself with being able to drive a hoop as tall as she around the Boston Common better than any boy.

Frank ultimately broke her little heart through betrayal, breaking up the friendship. Yet despite the pain, Louisa remembered him fondly in the story.

Christy

Here was a boy in whom Louisa could place her confidence. She met Christy while visiting relatives away from home and found him to be a tremendous source of solace. Punished by the matron for being naughty, she is banished to the garret to ponder her sins. Being Louisa, she lashed herself endlessly with guilt. Christy offers sweet solace:

“Seeing the tragic expression of my face, he said not a word, but, sitting down in an old chair, took me on his knee and held me close and quietly, letting the action speak for itself. It did most eloquently; for the kind arm seemed to take me back from that dreadful exile, and the friendly face to assure me without words that I had not sinned beyond forgiveness.”

Augustus

Louisa refers to “Gus” as her “first little lover, and the most romantic of my boys.” Fifteen at the time, she was again visiting, away from her family. Gus was seventeen and made overtures, inviting her to go berry picking. They discussed novels and poetry, and he serenaded her with his accordion while out boating.

Louisa speaks of him in a very soft and sentimental manner; it sounds like a typical summer romance. They kept in touch from time to time after parting but tragically, Augustus died young. It made me wonder if the relationship would have continued, perhaps matured, had he lived.

Alf Whitman

Louisa met Alf later in life, she being considerably older than he. He was motherless and thus, she reached out as a caring Mama. They met during her tenure with the Concord Dramatic Union (now the Concord Players), performing as Dolphus and Sophy Tetterby in the “Haunted Man” by Charles Dickens. They formed a fast and lasting friendship even after he married and had children, she always referring to Alf as Dolphus in her letters.

Certainly the two connected through their mutual interest in acting, acting being one of Louisa’s strongest passions.

According to Louisa, Laurie was based on a combination of Alf Whitman and Ladislas Wisniewski.

Alf is considered one of the inspirations for Laurie in Little Women. Louisa writes to Alf, “… I put you into my story as one of the best & dearest lads I ever knew! “Laurie” is you & my Polish boy “jintly” [sic jointly]” (from The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; associate editor Madeleine Stern).

Louisa’s Polish Boy, Ladislas Wisniewski

“Laddie” is the boy that invites the most speculation. At twenty, Laddie was thirteen years Louisa’s junior when they met in Vevey, Switzerland during Louisa’s first trip to Europe. Although again, the affection appears motherly on Louisa’s part (and he even referred to her as his “little Mamma”), it is obvious this boy meant the most to her.

Louisa’s service as a nurse in the Civil War heightened her motherly instincts, attracting her to young men who had served, especially those who were sickly. Laddie had served in the Polish Revolution and was suffering from a respiratory illness that was possibly life-threatening.

Laddie was something of a prankster, appealing to Louisa’s sense of humor. His skill as a pianist spoke to her heart.

The two companions found ways to communicate despite the language barrier: she struggled with French while he learned  English. Theirs was a warm and intimate relationship sharing their interests and passions.

The fortnight that the two spent in Paris had tongues wagging. Some scholars believe Louisa might have had a full-blown romance with Laddie.  Certainly being escorted by a young man without a chaperone all around the romantic city was daring (although she defends the action as proper, citing her age).

Louisa writes poignantly of their parting:

“… I drew down his tall head and kissed him tenderly, feeling that in this world there were no more meetings for us. Then I ran away and buried myself in an empty railway carriage, hugging the little cologne bottle he had given me.”

Laddie was to be, in part, the inspiration for Laurie (as shown by Laurie’s ability as a pianist, his European background and experiences, and his pranks).

Why adolescent boys?

So why was Louisa attracted to adolescent boys? As previously stated, she found a kindred spirit in boys this age and they accepted her wholeheartedly. With boys, she could be herself.

Her infatuations with Emerson and Thoreau offer a second explanation: safety. As a young girl “in love” with older men, she could enjoy her innocent and private fantasies without ever having to act out on them. Later, as an older spinster, she could seek out the intimate male companionship she desired without having to consider marriage and all its pitfalls.

In both cases, she never had to tread into the dangerous territory of sexual relations.

It is ironic that her younger sister May also engaged in a relationship with a younger man (Ernest Nieriker) and ended up marrying him!

Recalling the massive crush I had on my French teacher in middle school, I can attest to the satisfying nature of a fantasy relationship. As an adult, I’ve had the opportunity to become friendly with this man but I deliberately kept my distance, thus preserving the fantasy. It remains a pleasant memory.

Why do you think Louisa sought out the company of teenage boys?

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